Player one

Hit play on the gameplay artworld of Gabriel Massan
By Kate Neave | Art | 28 April 2023

“There should be no end to experimentation,” Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director of the Serpentine Galleries tells us, quoting the late Dame Zaha Hadid. “This is particularly relevant to the technology of our times, and this ethos applies to art and artists.” To date, the Serpentine has been at the bleeding edge of embracing new technologies, recognising the importance of supporting experimental artistic practices. A new collaboration with Brazilian artist Gabriel Massan is one of their most ambitious projects to date, expanding well beyond the walls of Kensington Gardens. Powered by the energy-efficient blockchain, Tezos, the game will reach into online player communities by building an active archive of gameplay.

Third World is best understood as a platform for Massan’s collaborations with artists, technologists and thinkers including Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro, Novíssimo Edgar, LYZZA, Carlos Minozzi, Masako Hirano, Marcinho Manga, Ralph McCoy and Alexandre Pina. Working with this international team, Massan has created a multi-level downloadable video game incorporating wildly creative graphics and disorientating gameplay that allows players to find their own path through this surreal, fantasy environment. By disrupting expectations, they are encouraged to reassess what they understand about the world along the way. “The game utilises world-building and collaborative storytelling to challenge colonialist concepts of ‘exploration’, ‘nature’ and ‘knowledge’, and encourage a different kind of wayfinding,” Obrist explains.

Gabriel Massan is at the forefront of an incredible new generation of artists emerging out of Latin America. Their genuinely experimental work disregards the assumptions we hold about contemporary art both by stretching across genres and pushing the limits of our imagination. Development of this new scene has been encouraged by a strong network of online communities including Brazilian collective MAGMA and Mint Fund, a community-owned initiative helping BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ crypto creatives mint NFTs. A shining light of this new movement, Massan seeks to address inequalities of the Black-Indigenous Brazilian experience.


Kate Neave: Your take on digital art is so extraordinarily progressive and creative, it would be great to start right at the beginning. I’d love to hear about the origin of your work from those first kernels of thought.
Gabriel Massan: I started making work from a really young age. At the beginning of my teenage years, my aunt donated me a computer that belonged to her. I became really passionate about games that simulate life, like The Sims and Second Life. Before then, I used to go to internet cafes to play games with other kids, but they were all much more interested in violent games like GTA or Counter-Strike. So when I got this computer, I was coming back from school and spending hours in front of it doing my own thing. I started to record the screen and direct these kind of Brazilian soap operas. I began creating a script, then recording and editing them all by myself. At one point, I decided to publish them on YouTube and it became a huge thing for me, even though I was still young.

KN: But you didn’t continue to pursue your artistic interests in your studies or career. It was something you came back to?
GM: Yes, in the last years in school I had to study more and prepare for university, so I left my artwork on the back burner. I also think, in my background, art wasn’t really a ‘thing’. We couldn’t imagine that art could be a career for me and so I decided to study social communication. But in the middle of the graduation process, I had this epiphany that I needed to go back to art. I applied for an art school programme for building interventions with art and technology. I started to study video art and video installation. I had this idea of blending these early references I had in my head. I started with 2D images until, at one point, I began experimenting with 3D software. Then I fell in love with experimenting with digital sculptures. So even today, my work always starts there. Everything in my work can be related to an object, or a being – it develops from how I position and animate those sculptures.

KN: What other influences were feeding into your artwork at that time?
GM: I didn’t come from an art background. My family was not used to visiting museums and galleries. I was much more interested in theatre and cinema. So the people I was really into were directors like Akira Kurosawa, Djibril Diop Mambéty, Yoshitoshi ABe, Hideaki Anno, Felipe Braga, and Yoko Ono’s Fly. The references I was bringing to video art school were really different from typical video performance work. Before getting the scholarship there, I visited an exhibition of Nam June Paik’s work. After that, I also started to see myself creating and developing video art, but digital work was not really accepted at that time. It was not really related to art by institutions. The only path I could turn to, to pursue this career and develop this interest in 3D and virtual experiences, was design. So I worked with design and sound production for a long time before getting opportunities to exhibit my work.

KN: It’s so interesting to see these interests feed into your practice at such an early stage and I’m sure the design perspective has greatly influenced your approach. I know you found it difficult to be a digital artist in Brazil and eventually you relocated to Berlin where you are living now. Could you tell me about your journey?
GM: The school I went to in Rio is in this tourist spot facing Christ the Redeemer. So at the same time you were there studying, there’s a bunch of tourists taking photos. There’s also high security and it’s a restricted place. It didn’t feel like a comfortable place to really dive, understand my art and also create relationships with other artists. At one point, I decided to move to São Paulo, because there was this emerging art scene there. In 2018, we was part of the first performance pavilion at SP-Arte, the biggest art fair in Latin America. All my friends, everyone I connected with, was part of the pavilion and we had to stay there, living and eating in front of the audience while also presenting our work and research. Then in 2019, I was selected for a residency in Spain at ETOPIA. It’s in Zaragoza in this building that looks like Area 51. I went there to research augmented reality and sensors. It led me to Berlin because the city is a big hub for the digital artists I met there.

KN: How did being in Berlin affect your work?
GM: Everything changed for me. I gained perspective and began to understand that what I was doing was an intention to rebuild memory in connection with my identity. I was experimenting all the time with digital work by just letting my hands create without really thinking about what I wanted to do. At this point, I understood that my work was an attempt to create images and cultural references I could relate to and get excited about. With the whitening of the Americas through colonisation, I don’t have access to the genealogical tree from my family. They are all immigrants from other parts of Brazil and when they came to Rio all their history was erased because they received new names, or had to get a new registration. I don’t have any information about my family dating from before my grandma and grandpa, so there is a lack of identity for me relating to where I come from. These types of questions about my identity are in my head, so I think my practice of discovering and building cultures and worlds is related to a need to understand a little bit more about me.

KN: I feel like your work for the Serpentine is very much about challenging our contemporary perspective on society developed as a result of colonialism and various assumptions about nature and human knowledge we’ve embraced. It will provide us with a different viewpoint and a different perspective. Is that how you see it?
GM: Yes, at the beginning I had a concept of [author] Saidiya Hartman’s in my head called ‘critical fabulation’. In essence, you get historical facts and use the beauty of fiction to construct a narrative around them. What I had in mind is that I really wanted to build a world, but since this was made to be accessed by multiple audiences, I didn’t want to base it on traditional notions of navigation. I wanted to get away from the idea of us coming to a place and imagining that everything there will adapt to your own needs. With Third World, I really wanted the environment itself to be the main protagonist. I wanted the environment to criticise, and to invite the player to see from another perspective. I understood that I needed to build two different systems, one that is talking to the player, directing and presenting this whole new world and then the other system would be how this new world would see and perceive the player. So these two systems are kind of clashing and have different goals and intentions.

KN: It’s not only the content of the game which challenges conventions but the structure is quite revolutionary too.
GM: Everything is connected to energy. Reflecting on how games work, they are often based on collecting and extracting, which is also related to the mission of the player inside this game, which is to extract raw materials. I wanted that extraction not to be taken out of the game but to be integrated into the experience. This idea is something we’ve been developing with the whole team – which is a really huge team of technologists and artists. I also could not draw out this concept without adding more artists and more perspectives. So I decided to create a platform that artists, technologists and our audience can change and manipulate. Basically, I created all the sculptures in the environment and set some of the laws that would apply, like gravity and the weather, and gave other artists the freedom to dub all the creatures and to write narrative on top of that. Every level is narrated and co-created by a different artist.

KN: I love that it’s a collaboration between artists, technologists, philosophers and other disciplines. It’d be great to know a little bit about how you work together, or what the different inputs were?
GM: The idea to collaborate came from the understanding that a world is formed by multiple beings and things. Since I’m creating a world, it wouldn’t match the concept if I was only creating by myself. I also wanted to create a project where I could invite artists and professionals who influenced me, and that I have had a connection with over the past few years. It’s because of their thinking and research I was inspired to get here. The first person we invited was Castiel Vitorino Brasileiro. She holds a Master’s in Psychology, she’s also an artist and presents educational workshops related to trans people, religion, and how to build secure and safe places. So I decided to invite Castiel for the first level, for her to dub and also write a narrative, because she’s also a writer. I really wanted to take artists from different practices, so for the second level I invited Novíssimo Edgar. He’s also from Brazil but he’s a visual artist and rapper, Edgar is really concerned with the environment. He raps about the fires in the Amazon rainforest and writes about how we deal with trash, about corruption and freedom. So I decided to have Edgar work on the second level of the game to respond to Castiel’s creation. I have also invited LYZZA, the sound designer and producer to contribute. LYZZA is more from the club scene that also influenced me. She’s really young, and she grew up in Amsterdam, but she is also Brazilian.

KN: So a lot of the rest of the team is also Brazilian?
GM: Yes, I also gathered a team of developers who worked on my first game, all from Brazil. But while I was coming up with that team, I got to know the work of Masako Hirano, she’s Thai-Japanese and an amazing graphic designer. The way she approached 3D and design was really related to our aesthetics and the way we create. She also starts with digital sculptures and I thought she could bring everything together. We did multiple sessions with Veronica So, the producer at Ian Cheng, and we also had sessions with Jakob Steensen, who was part of the first Artist Worlds series, and I love his work. So it’s a really collaborative platform. Everyone at Serpentine is also producing and playing the game. All the members of the arts and technology team have been adding to the feedback. So there is a really strange ownership in the work, because everyone is adding and editing. It’s interesting to build an experience for multiple audiences, it’s something I’ve never done before.

KN: And the audiences themselves will have a chance to participate as well, is that right? There’ll be a chance to mint gameplay captures?
GM: Yes, since the game has so many possibilities and paths and there are two systems in play, I wanted to find a way to understand how different people navigate the game and respond to it. The way I could do that, in my mind, was to give a camera to the player, so everything you see and experience you can save for yourself. Or you can mint experiences, share and be a part of the community. It’s a way of also listening to the audience and bringing their experiences inside the game.

KN: Is there going to be an online space where people can interact and form a community?|
GM: Yes, since this project comes from the Artist Worlds series, as with the other projects, it will be launched on Twitch. So we will bring together Twitch experiences and then we are also building a Discord around it and a microsite. The idea is that whenever the work is exhibited, everyone who plays the game and registers with the photos and videos will also be participating in all the exhibitions. In collaboration with the Tezos Ecosystem, Third World’s reach will expand into online player communities with an active and ongoing archive of gameplay.

KN: And you’ll have a physical exhibition opening at the Serpentine in Summer 2023?
GM: Yes. I’m really excited to bring everyone who was part of the game to be part of the IRL experiences. We have been developing multiple ways of playing and accessing the game in the space. I’ve been looking a lot at Hito Steyerl’s thoughts about how the support and tools can also be part of the work; the chair, the table, the screen, they’re all part of the work, not only what you are seeing on the screen. This an understanding I’ve been bringing to the exhibition design too.

KN: It extends that idea of building a world, doesn’t it? You’re building a world in the game and in the exhibition, and people will begin to look at gallery spaces and institutions in a completely different way.
GM: Every experience is changed by the way you connect with it. For example, accessing Facebook on mobile and accessing Facebook on computers is a totally different experience. Playing games on a mobile, versus playing games on a computer, everything changes. Whether you are seated or in a bed, you are also playing differently. I think working with video games is about letting the audience direct their own path inside the artwork. So basically, everyone who accesses this work will see it from a different point of view, which will give them a different experience.

KN: Working with computer games is such a good way to connect with a wider audience. I love digital art, but traditionally it’s had such a narrow audience. Now it’s starting to open up a bit but working with computer games is a way you can increase impact of the art you’re creating.
GM: Last weekend, I went to the DLD [Digital-Life-Design] conference in Munich. I saw many technologists and researchers talking about how, with games, everything is sealed inside a game and it’s not really something that is mainstream. But I do think it is mainstream, we also need to take into account that games are being played inside schools. Games are being played inside universities. Games are being played in public institutions. Games are being played by multiple young audiences. We’re now entering a completely digital era.

KN: Do you think ultimately a game can have an impact and change ways of approaching the world and shift power relations? I guess that must be the ultimate aim for the project?
GM: I do believe that. I believe games can have a political approach and also that games can criticise, change the way we navigate and how we relate to each other. With this game, I’m building a world emphasising how the environment needs to be perceived, or how the environment needs your attention. I’m not thinking that everyone there will leave with in-depth information, but I do think everyone who plays the game will get a feeling out of that experience. A feeling can also have the power to make changes, or direct our emotions and ourselves towards a different path. It can make us understand different perspectives.

Interview originally published in HEROINE 18.

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